A surgeon plunges a knife into a cardboard box. A woman shrieks in agony. Then, when she raises her hand, it is coated in gold. What is the significance? Is this a subtle literary reference? And are we 100 per cent sure what is actually going on?
These questions and others pop up in Elspeth Brooke’s The Commission and Francisco Coll’s Café Kafka, two dream-like works jointly commissioned by Aldeburgh Music, the Royal Opera and Opera North. Premiered last week in Aldeburgh and now travelling, via London, to Leeds, these are the first products of a three-year-long scheme to provide opportunities for young opera writers. They are also Brooke’s and Coll’s debut operas and their originality of subject matter is admirable, as is their scale of ambition. They may be chamber works, but there is enough packed in here for something much larger and longer.
Based on a poem by the Irish-American writer Michael Donaghy, The Commission is about a man obsessively contemplating revenge, with echoes of Hamlet and explores themes of absolution, rage and guilt. This may sound promising, but Jack Underwood’s libretto – over-stuffed with symbolism from Donaghy’s poem and folktales – is highly esoteric. So it is not surprising that Brooke plays it safe, rarely venturing beyond a hazy atmosphere of foreboding, although her score – bearing the imprint of Renaissance music – is seductive, sensuous and colourfully orchestrated. More problematic is Annabel Arden’s production, which includes an intrusive video element and relies too heavily on the macabre for emotional impact.
Café Kafka is more successful, largely owing to Meredith Oakes’s poetic libretto. Using fragments from Kafka’s short stories, Oakes has pieced together a neat, frequently funny series of scenes portraying the eternal frustrations of loneliness and couple-hood. It has clearly inspired Coll, whose playful, inventive score evokes the atmosphere of the circus, while following every nuance of the text. Arden’s production, set in a bar, similarly bubbles with a delicious energy.
Among a strong collection of singers, the majority of whom appear in both operas, soprano Anna Dennis impresses most with her equally mesmerising portrayals of the Daughter (The Commission) and the Woman (Café Kafka). Meanwhile the Chroma ensemble keeps things anchored, responding light-footedly to Richard Baker’s incisive conducting.